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January 4 2018

Behind the DOE's Reports of Astonish Improvement in High School Graduation Rates: Unearned Diplomas

by Charlotte Hays

It may benefit education professionals when there are high graduation rates that do not indicate actual acquisition of skills, but it doesn't help the young people whom schools are supposedly there to prepare for life.

Alice Lloyd and Max Eden take a look behind those glowing reports on high school graduation rates in public schools released by the Education Department and find something pretty rotten:  the numbers are meaningless and diplomas are unearned.

Lloyd and Eden focus on Ballou High School in Southeast DC, a school that serves low-income families and had an astonishing 100 percent college acceptance rate for its senior class reported in 2016.

The previous year only 57 percent of Ballou seniors graduated and only 3 percent met reading standards on citywide exams (they fared worse on the math tests).  Oddly, during the 2016-2017 school year, a time that should have been gratifying to the staff  given the school's great move forward, more than a fourth of the school's faculty left, complaining of disciplinary problems.

What was going on at Ballou?

The media swooned over Ballou's seemingly miraculous progress but one reporter, Kate McGee of WAMU, the local NPR affiliate, got behind the numbers. Eden and Lloyd sum up McGee's findings in two words: systematic fraud. Here are some of the tricks that gave Ballou its stellar graduation numbers:

The truancy policy in Washington, D.C., public schools (DCPS) holds that any student who misses class more than 30 times should fail the course in question. More than half of Ballou’s class of 2017 missed more than three weeks of school, and one in five missed more days than they’d attended. A system of remedial work covered their repeat absences.

Teachers, under pressure from administrators, gave half-credit for missed work even when students had earned none. Those who objected, McGee reported, were given poor evaluations that could lead to dismissal. And seniors who weren’t on track to graduate with their class attended “credit recovery” crash courses, accelerated, watered-down versions of the classes they were already failing.

. . .

At Ballou, the unions’ worst nightmare was realized. The principal used D.C.’s evaluation system to punish teachers who wouldn’t follow her scheme of relaxed truancy rules and breezy remedial courses. DCPS announced on December 4 that Ballou’s principal had been removed and assigned to “another function in the district.” None of this, mind you, would have unraveled without NPR’s reporting. And this wasn’t even the first revelation of DCPS fraud this year.

After the Obama administration threatened schools with federal investigation if their discipline rates broke unevenly by race, districts across the country cut back suspensions. But in New York, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Virginia Beach, Syracuse, Baton Rouge, Philadelphia (the list goes on and is still unfolding as new data come forth), classroom conditions deteriorated, and students and teachers said they felt less safe. Washington was the one bright spot in that suspensions dramatically decreased, but school climate seemingly stayed stable.

Another miraculous victory here in the headquarters of technocratic education reform? Nope, more fraud.

Kudos to Lloyd and Eden for a terrific article, though I do think they get one conclusion very wrong: Quoting from the work of political scientist Edward Banfield, they argue that "diminished confidence" in public schools "contributes to societal decay."

Nope, other way around: it's inferior public schools that contribute to societal decay, and losing confidence in these institutions is a positive step. The charter school movement was born of a loss of confidence in regular public schools.

Lloyd and Eden comment drolly on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos apparent lack of enthusiasm over the improved graduation stats being reported. Perhaps she knows that the numbers are not reality-based?

A phony diploma doesn't help the kids--though the unions and bureaucrats may find unrealistic graduation rates a big plus when negotiation time rolls round.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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